The Dictator | 2012
Sacha Baron Cohen moves away from the faux-documentary format of Borat and Bruno but, don’t worry, this straightforward comedy is no less provocative or calculatedly offensive.
General Aladeen (Baron Cohen), President of the fictitious North African nation of Wadiya, an amalgam of several former (and present) world leaders, enjoys a life of ostentatious privilege.
His gaudy presidential palace may look naggingly familiar. If you lose the CGI golden domes, you’ll see that it’s the ‘Theed Palace on Naboo’ from Star Wars – Episode 2: Attack of the Clones or, for older cinemagoers, the ‘Cairo’ officers’ club from David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia.
Yes, it’s the Palaçio Español, a semi-circular arcaded building in the Plaza de España, Seville, southern Spain, built for the 1929 Spanish-American exhibition. The Palaçio Español was largely empty when I visited a few years ago, and a bit dilapidated. It's since been restored and now houses council offices.
The Plaza itself is open to the public and here you'll find the canal with its elegant 'Venetian' bridges you can glimpse during the crowd scenes.
Aladeen’s glitzy, and much-used, bedroom was a room in what was the Villard Mansion, 455 Madison Avenue at East 50th Street, Midtown New York.
The Renaissance-style building (also known as the Villard Houses) was built in 1884 for Henry Villard, then president of the Northern Pacific Railroad.
If you want to recreate the whole debauched oligarch experience, it’s had a modern tower added and is now the Lotte New York Palace Hotel – though I’m not sure if they’re offering a Wadiya Suite.
For the Wadiyan desert, where Aladeen’s scientific team is developing a wrong-shaped nuclear weapon, it’s back to Spain – or Spanish territory.
The interior of the nuclear facility is that of the old East Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant, on the Wading River in East Shoreham, New York. The plant was decommissioned following protests in 1989 and, yes, there is quite a bit of set dressing.
When an assassination attempt mistakenly takes out Aladeen’s lookalike stand-in, another double is hastily recruited for the General’s trip to the USA to address the United Nations.
The ‘Lancaster Hotel’, where Aladeen and his entourage are greeted by a crass functionary (uncredited John C Reilly), is the Roosevelt Hotel, 45 East 45th Street at Vanderbilt Avenue, in Midtown Manhattan.
The Roosevelt is a regular screen star, having appeared in The French Connection, Spike Lee's epic Malcolm X, Men In Black 3, Boiler Room, Presumed Innocent, Maid in Manhattan, Quiz Show, 1408 and, more recently, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. Probably the hotel’s greatest moment on screen came when Gordon Gekko delivered his ‘Greed is good’ speech in its Grand Ballroom for Oliver Stone's Wall Street.
Aladeen’s treacherous second-in-command Tamir (Ben Kingsley) has his own agenda and on his orders, Aladeen is kidnapped and replaced by the double.
Escaping near-certain death, but having been shorn of his extravagant beard, Aladeen finds himself stranded and unrecognisable, across the east River in the unglamorous industrial area at North 12th Street at Kent Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Having begged clothes from a passing vagrant, Aladeen arrives back in Manhattan and caught up in the unruly protests outside the United Nations Building, First Avenue at 42nd Street, where the fake Aladeen is delivering his speech.
He’s rescued from the throng of demonstrators by idealistic activist Zoey (Anna Faris), who mistakes him for a Wadiyan dissident and whisks him away to safety in ‘Brooklyn’. She kindly offers him a job in her ‘Free Earth Collective’ democratically-run health food store.
In fact, this was an empty property (now a jewellery store) in the heart of Manhattan, at 7 West 30th Street, between Broadway and 5th Avenue.
Like quite a few Manhattan properties, the store wasn’t graced with a lush roof garden, so the collective’s rooftop farm is the 6,000-square-foot, organic Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, atop a warehouse at 44 Eagle Street, Greenpoint, which really is in Brooklyn and can supply those views across the East River to Manhattan without the aid of FX.
Disconsolately wandering the New York streets at night, Aladeen is surprised to see his supposedly-executed scientific officer Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas) working in the smart, glass-fronted Apple Store, 1980 Broadway at 67th Street.
Aladeen follows Nadal on the subway to Marcy Avenue Station on Broadway in Brooklyn – as the sign reads, ‘Little Wadiya’.
In fact, the supposedly nearby ‘Death to Aladeen’ restaurant to which Nadal is followed is nowhere near the Marcy Avenue station.
It’s Eastern Nights, 23-35 Steinway Street between 25th and 28th Streets in Astoria, Queens – a stretch of road lined with Arabic businesses and restaurants which really is known as Little Egypt.
At a time of genuine unrest in the Middle East, the fake restaurant sign with the gruesome logo proved a little too provocative for local residents and had to be kept covered.
Despite the friction which can easily arise from almost being executed, Nadal finds himself teaming up with his old boss to unseat the lookalike usurper.
‘Gotham Helicopters’, where the two take a flight over Manhattan to scope out the ‘Lancaster’, but unwisely drop the name ‘Bin Laden’ a few too many times, is the West 30th Street Heliport, 335 West 30th Street on the Hudson River.
They find themselves arrested and, once again, it’s up to Zoey to save the day, bailing Aladeen out of the ‘NYPD station’, which is the 1950s red-brick parking garage at 390 Kent Avenue in Brooklyn, beneath the supports of the Williamsburg Bridge.
To restore his identity, Aladeen urgently needs a replacement – and naturally real – beard. Along with Nadal, he crashes the solemnities at the ‘Watkins Funeral Chapel’ in order to retrieve the luxurious facial adornment from the recently deceased 'Godfather of Harlem'.
This chapel is the old Mount Moriah Baptist Church, 2050 5th Avenue at West 127th Street in Harlem. The 19th century Romanesque building was bought by artist Ugo Rodinone in 2011, and is now used as a cultural community space.
Zoey’s horrified reaction to his revealing his real identity sends Aladeen into a suicidal gloom, threatening to throw himself in the East River from the Queensboro Bridge.
Of course, he doesn’t, and it’s back to the Roosevelt Hotel for the finale.